The first sport I loved was American tackle football. I started playing when I was a shrimp sized kid, 9 years old, and about 70 lbs. including pads. In football, 11 people line up against 11 other people, with one side trying to advance the ball over a line and the other side trying to stop them.
In this game of advancement, there is only ever one person holding the ball at a time, and the major stats and accolades revolve around what happens to the ball. Individuals can get admired and praised for their efforts; the overall objective is to win as a team, but you can be recognized as a great player despite the overall result of your team.
In the second sport I loved, rowing, individual performances in a sweep boat mean almost nothing. One person's actions without accounting for how the collective is moving can completely disrupt your race. There is not a superstar oarsman in an 8+ who propels a boat to victory. It is always about combinations and what lineup makes the boat overall fastest. Somehow, I fell in love with two sports that on the surface could not be any more different, but the desire to compete and strive for a collective goal is something that I am extremely passionate about.
I joined the team in January of 2018, and my first three months in the sport were exclusively on the erg and occasionally in still water rowing tanks. Our portion of the Connecticut River up at Dartmouth College is frozen from the months of December through early April almost every year. I remember those first couple workouts being purely pain, but also remember seeing exponential growth in the numbers on my monitor almost every time I stepped on the erg. Seeing progress like this was super encouraging to me, and despite all of the monitors around me being significantly faster, I focused on my individual progress and getting closer to my teammates.
The months building up my aerobic base and spending grueling hours on an erg made rowing on the water for the first time extremely special for me. It was both terrifying and exhilarating. The crisp early spring air racing by my ears, and the sound of the shell cutting through the water was so unique. Even though I spent my time rowing only with whoever was available at the bottom end of our team, I really appreciated any chance I got to get on the water. The sport was so new to me, and the experience was so surreal that I cherished those moments greatly and prioritized not wasting a single opportunity.
I truly believe that the lessons that you learn from sports, especially team sports, can be carried into all facets of life. A win in a crew race does not bring you hordes of money, it does not bring you a ton of notoriety outside of our niche rowing world, but the knowledge of what it takes to get everyone in a boat to move together with a similar goal is truly special.
I am a Black American, and I certainly feel isolated and lonely at every regatta and dual race that I have attended. If I had joined crew when I was younger, I probably would not have had the fortitude to stick with the sport, especially given my background in football, a popular sport that has a ton of representation among Black Americans.
Green (bow seat) racing in spring 2019
But I want other children across the nation to be able to learn the lessons I have gained from rowing and feel that same rush that I feel is so difficult to match elsewhere. This is what brought me to the point of working with the George Pocock Rowing Foundation, and their overall mission.
Recently I started working with GPRF as a staff member who will be working with the Erg Ed and Student Services programs within the foundation. The position is facilitated through the AmeriCorps Volunteer in Service to America (VISTA) program, which oversees the HR and administrative side of my work.
As stated on our website, the broader mission of GPRF is "To build and support high-quality programs and facilities that promote access to rowing, excellence in rowing, and use rowing as a means to foster physical activity, health, leadership, and community engagement." This mission deeply resonates with my view of sports as a mechanism that can have a lifelong positive impact on individuals and community members.
What is even more promising to me about the foundation is our vision of how we can accomplish our mission, "With a primary focus on youth participation… scholarship support creates a more inclusive and accessible rowing community for any and all youth."
In Episode 40 of the "Rowing in Color" podcast (Check it out on Spotify or Apple podcasts!), I spoke about some of the most pressing issues rowers face currently that have been exacerbated by COVID-19. I spoke about how adverse times like these are moments where privileged individuals with a safety net can maintain or advance themselves, while those who are underserved suffer even more harm. Organizations like GPRF are essential to prevent dramatic diversions from happening in lived experience.
If an individual like me who had no background in rowing can get so attached to the sport and believe in its mission after only three years of exposure, just think about how powerful it could be if supported for many more communities across the nation. Donating to programs that assist others is certainly one way to help promote change, but think about your actions and implicit bias as well. Small interactions of implicit bias and being unwelcoming can be the factor that drives future impactful rowers and coxswains away from the sport for good.
Michael D. Green is the George Pocock Rowing Foundation Erg Ed and Student Services Data Analyst and a member of Dartmouth College Heavyweight Rowing C/O 2021